Calls, preparations for general strike grow

Calls, preparations for general strike grow

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Calls for a general strike are growing among union members and supporters as the state Legislature advanced a law stripping public sector unions of almost all bargaining rights, but it remains unclear whether strikes or pickets will appear soon.

Union leaders say the Republicans' fast-track passage of the bill has fueled strike talk, but for now most are urging legal measures such as recall of Republican legislators as a way to repeal the law.

"A general strike would be playing the trump card, and you don't play the trump right away, you build up to that," said Jim Cavanaugh, president of the 45,000-member South Central Federal of Labor in Madison.

The federation endorsed a general strike on Feb. 21 and on Thursday began distributing educational materials on how such a strike can be accomplished.

"To do it right, there's a lot of preparation," Cavanaugh said. "If you do it lightly you're going to end up with more problems. You're exposing people to job loss and other repercussions if appropriate steps aren't taken."

Among the materials are two pages of logistical issues that were dealt with in series of general strikes in Ontario in the late 1990s, and a memorandum on how to strike and picket without risking discipline, fines or jail.

"General strike" has been one of the chants that resounded through the Capitol during massive protests Wednesday and Thursday after the Legislature passed a bill that would remove bargaining rights for about 175,000 workers and create major obstacles to basic operations for unions representing teachers, state workers and local government employees.

Gov. Scott Walker said the measures will help governments cut costs and resolve a state budget deficit.

Sick teachers

Many teachers called in sick for one or more days last month after Walker announced his plan, but this week Wisconsin Education Association Council president Mary Bell urged the union's 98,000 members to go to work.

"There are lots of things that can happen when people feel their rights have been trampled," Bell said. "We've asked people to be in class."

Sun Prairie teachers walked out for a day in February, and their union leader said he hopes it doesn't happen again.

"That was desperate move at a desperate time," said Brad Lutes, president of the Sun Prairie Education Association teachers union. "People are upset."

Recall campaigns against Walker and his supporters in the Legislature, public support for unions and court challenges to the law itself are offering hope, Lutes said.

Widespread and selective

In almost all cases, a strike could be authorized only by a vote of local union members.

A successful strike would need to be both widespread and selective in order to show strength without alienating the public, union leaders said.

"That's a decision that has to be made with a lot of other unions," Laura Peterson, a member of the AFSCME Local 171 executive board.

Madison firefighters union leader Joe Conway Jr. said he believes a general strike would be effective, but his union is looking for ways to participate that wouldn't endanger the public, such as violating work rules by wearing uniforms during off-duty protests.

Union members have been aroused by the collective bargaining law, accusations that it was passed without proper public notice and the belief that it's an attempt by Republicans to bust unions and gain a permanent upper hand over the Democratic Party, Conway said.

"We don't mind a fair fight, but when someone chooses to break the law, and we're still playing within the rules, it gives you cause to notice," Conway said.

— State Journal reporters Matt DeFour and Sandy Cullen contributed to this article.

 

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